Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Last Civil Rights Movement, pt. 4 - The original sin of America's educational apartheid was not that it forced black children to go to school with other blacks. It was more fundamentally a sin of depriving some children the right attend a school that best met their educational needs and aspirations; most black schools were woefully equipped and poorly staffed relative to white schools. The Civil Rights Movement of that era was faced with two imperfect choices: either to encourage whites to fund majority-white and majority-black schools equally or to open white public schools to black students. Perhaps necessarily as a function of expedience, the conversation about educational options for black students became a discussion about desegregation of schools, as opposed to an argument for school choice more generally. (In retrospect, history seems to have confirmed the wisdom of the former.)

In any event, today's school voucher discussion naturally picks up where efforts at school desegregation left off. As it is, increasing per-pupil spending in most urban school districts would simply reinforce the sclerotic bureaucracy that has stifled all efforts at reform thus far. So it brings great pleasure to note that last week, legislature of Utah passed the most sweeping voucher plan of any state. According to the Salt Lake Tribune,
Utah will be the first state to grant "public education vouchers to families in all income brackets throughout the state," with the article going on to note, "programs in a handful of other states are limited to low-income students, city school districts or failing schools."

To underscore the need for some sort of education reform in Utah and nationally, one need only look at NAEP scores for Utah in comparison to the national average. In 2005, the average 4th-grade NAEP reading score for white children in Utah was 225.90, as compared with a 227.64 average score nationwide. Similarly, for Utah's Hispanic 4th-graders, the average score was 198.69 vs. 201.34 nationally. (Comparisons for African American 4th-graders are unavailable, as Utah did not meet the reporting standards for black students.)

As is to be expected, the opponents of school choice arrayed themselves against the legislation.
(Of course, this does not surprise, as Democrats have recognized neither a child's right to life, nor a child's right to learn.)

"This is not about the children," said Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City. "We've got it covered up real nice making it seem like it is. But the reality is, it's about taking tax dollars and giving them to private industry."

Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake City, objected because the program could cost more than $40 million a year by the time it's fully implemented, according to the Legislative Fiscal Analyst's Office. It will take $9.3 million from general funds this year, and $12.4 million next year.
For the record, noted in the article, voucher supporters expect that this bill will actually increase overall education spending, as "parents of voucher students add money to state education funding when they make up tuition differences." Fortunately, HB148 passed the Utah Senate handily, with a 19-10 majority, although it squeaked through the House by a vote of 38-37. Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. has indicated his inclination to sign the legislation into law fairly quickly, commenting that "it's hard to argue that it is deleterious to education long term." But it will surely have a negative effect on Utah's educational establishment. So as was noted in the February 11, 2007 Tribune, we can expect constitutional challenges from parents represented by organizations such as the ACLU.

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